We are at a tipping point.
White America and the globe are facing the truth that black people have been screaming for a long time: that this society continually, violently shows us that black lives don’t matter. What white people saw in public in the videos of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s murders is what we knew in private and never got justice for.
Why have people not believed us? We have been screaming with a foot on our necks that our society is structured so that white lives are more valuable than black lives. We are in a system of injustice that relegates us to second-class citizens, exploits us, disrespects us, and kills us. As Michelle Alexander writes in her essay, “America, This is Your Chance,” “We know these truths about black experiences, but we often pretend we don’t.” We act as if denial will save us. It will not.
The question we are asking, as James Baldwin asked before us: How much time do you want for your progress?
Progress. That’s what we were told was happening — since some of us had been “included” in certain sectors, our fellow citizens in effect told us, “shut up, be grateful.”
The late theologian James Cone wrote of a story I’ll never forget. It was the year 1967. Detroit had gone up in flames as black people publicly cried, “Enough is enough!”He had a Ph.D., but not once had he read anything that was accountable to black people’s struggle for freedom. This revolutionized his thinking. He had to give voice to both blackness and theology — Jesus and racial justice, liberation and love. And he did.
It happened that he met a white brother who became a dear friend to him — Lester B. Scherer. Cone said Scherer read and made editorial suggestions on nearly everything he wrote. But as Cone was trying to give voice to God, Jesus, resurrection, hope, struggle in his people’s struggle, he writes that, “Lester was a well-meaning friend, but his isolation in a white world prevented him from feeling black hurt, a pain so deep that it nearly drives blacks crazy.” Lester knew well the history of slavery, the white rage in Jim Crow, the brutal experience of second-class citizenship for blacks, exploitation, and continual disrespect.
Yet, as Cone writes, “he had no passion for his subject or for writing, and I don't think he ever really understood the depth of black suffering that produced my work.”
Could white people ever truly understand the price black people paid for their privilege? Like most white people who show sympathy for black people’s experiences, “Lester and his family seemed unaffected by black suffering, and uninterested in the struggles of blacks for justice. He read and edited all my books but nothing of what I said seemed to sink in.”
Today, we must realize that because someone is aware of the struggle for black freedom in America doesn’t mean they have been moved to action. They may have the right language — even write books, give addresses, give statements — but their actions show a commitment to the status quo rather than social justice.
This is why I say the struggle for justice, dignity, power, and community means that we must move from sympathy to solidarity. Sympathy feels bad about a situation. Solidarity joins in as a co-laborer to change the situation. Sympathy calls for love without risk. Solidarity calls for risk as love. Sympathy centers the comfort and timetable of those who benefit from a system of difference. Solidarity calls for a revolution of value in a system in which we build a loving and just common life together.
The need is not to widen our compassion through proximity to black people — though important. No, the need is for us to widen our conviction that sees black people as worth loving and fighting for in our social, political, economic, and cultural life.
“We cannot achieve racial justice and create a secure and thriving democracy,” Michelle Alexander writes, “without also transforming our economic systems.” The common life we have now is more built of destruction than dignity, property than people, difference than democracy.
In issuing a clarion call to love, Alexander calls us to move out of cheap calls for progress to finally actualize racial and economic justice. There is a need to learn of our racial past and its present reality. Problems caused by white supremacy must be dismantled through policies and practices that upend this experience of racial difference. Black lives can’t just matter in May and June; they must matter in November and beyond.
I believe this is the moment for us to fight to realize the demands of love. As it is my call and vocation, I believe in the power of preaching. This moment needs a message of good news for a world in disarray — a world in which hope is on a tightrope, oppressive regimes wreak havoc on the disinherited, where inequality and injustice are widespread.⠀⠀
I also believe in the power of prayer. Prayer becomes the life-giving practice and discipline that keeps me centered in the life of God and rooted in the life of my world — particularly a racist nation that must be survived as a black person in a anti-black world.⠀
I also believe in the power of protest. It is this public practice that exposes that tragic gap between the world as it is and the world as it should and can be. Protest wakes us out of our illusion. It exposes the white surpemacist capitalist logic as damning and destructive.⠀
I also believe in the power of policy. It is this holy legislative work that bridges the dreams of a people in society with the destiny of the people. I believe in the power of policy to upend the value gap and racial habits that fails to produce a loving and just world. The American was born in difference and sustained by it and we need reform that will make the conditions more humane.
I believe in the power of community. It is these life giving people, from all different walks of life, that become the place where God is. The Spirit moves us from indifference to being a people who move in the same direction — of love, power, and justice.
I believe in the power of Jesus: the liberating Messiah who transforms life so that the Kingdom of God becomes a living reality, even if it is but a seed of the blossom that is to come. Resurrection power gives new life, new energy, new hope to face the darkness of the day.
I believe that Christians are called not to create a Christian nation, but to join God and others in creating a more loving and just world for all of life. To be black and to be Christian is the place of struggle, the place of pain, but also of beauty.
As we endeavor to realize a new day I hear once again the words of Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.”